Arc: Butterfly Wings

Arc Flower: Calla Lily

No, I don't remember dying, except for the fact that I definitely did. Die, that is. My memory for important events in my life always was iffy. First off, I'm fairly certain that remembering would break the rules of the universe. Second off, you're an ass for trying to make me remember. What if it was suicide, huh? Or some drawn-out illness, or starvation, or something like that? Would I want to revisit those memories? Of course not. Don't ask again.

But I'm pretty sure it wasn't suicide. I was the most optimistic pessimist I knew in life, certain that everything was about to go to hell in a handbasket but equally convinced that I could find a way to pluck that handbasket out of the inferno with only a couple singe marks to show for it. And I'm pretty sure it wasn't starvation. Food, when I'd remembered there was a world beyond my room, had been one of my joys in life. Cleaning up after myself when I'd finished, not so much.

As for breaking the rules of the universe, I don't trust those. If they were really all that ironclad, I wouldn't have ended up in the wrong world. I'd make a quip about your reaction being similar to mine when I figured it out, but I seem to recall some truly terrible lines from fanfiction that had somebody switching worlds and ending up here. Only usually 'here' was the living world of the Bleach universe, not Soul Society, and switching was some kind of magical accident that never got explained properly, not dying.

Yes, the Bleach universe. Apparently God decided to see what would happen when an anime nerd got thrown into her favorite series. I plan on having a word with Him if I ever make it through the pearly gates. He'd better have a good explanation for this.

And speaking of explanations, my first reaction when I realized where I was was closer to 'so that's how nobles have kids' than 'oh shit I'm not in the right universe.' Multiverse. Still not all that clear on how it works. I've determined that I'm not in my time, let alone my world, so there's the possibility that when I got reincarnated my soul slipped through the cracks and fell into the wrong era. If that's true, then a good part of my upbringing was a lie, but at least I'll have the comfort of knowing that familiar places and people will still exist. If my soul hopped worlds altogether, something that would probably fry my brain to understand is at work. But at least I won't have to worry about accidentally preventing myself from being born.

You might be wondering how I figured out what time I'm in. Until I was the Soul equivalent of four, I didn't have a clue. All I knew was that I didn't look like me, that whatever language was being spoken was a hell of a lot closer to Japanese than Hebrew or whatever angels spoke, and that the people calling themselves my parents were not in any way related to me. Turned out that the mysterious language was Japanese and my 'parents' actually were my parents, just not the ones I was used to. There was a small picture that my mother kept at her calligraphy table to prove it, a little painting of me in her arms with my father standing at her shoulder. Still haven't quite figured out why I don't look like my old self—maybe it's only Rukon-born souls who look like their past selves? Something else to research. In any event, Mom—Makoto—replaced it with another small portrait that year, right when I was starting to get enough experience of the world to figure out where I was.

Now there's a cute little picture of me kneeling by my mom's bedside, my father's hand on my shoulder. It's obvious from the way I'm staring fixedly at the painter that I'm trying hard not to look at my mom and the little bundle in her arms.

The picture frame bore all our names on it, inscribed into the blond wood in delicate, rose-colored kanji. First came Dad, of course, "Hirako Kenji." Then there was Mom, "Hirako Makoto." I came third, as the eldest child, girl or not, "Hirako Nariko." The last name was the reason little me was avoiding looking at my new sibling. "Hirako Shinji" was the last name written on that frame.

Hirako Shinji. I'm the elder sister of Hirako Shinji. All but twins in this long-lived society, really. But I keep him in his place.

Before he was born, when I'd just seen my first Shinigami and realized what had happened to me, I'd been thinking that I could finally live a life I'd fantasized about for years. Becoming a Shinigami with the prestige, power, and adventures that entailed? Hell yeah I wanted that. In my old life I'd been a horrible combination of decisive and wishy-washy, quickly settling on the decision that would benefit the most number of people and probably leave me in the lurch. Here, where no one expected that of me—every Hirako I knew was outgoing, a prank-player, and terrible at being anything they weren't—I could finally do what I wanted. The clan was well-off enough that I probably wouldn't hurt the family too much if I screwed up, too.

Now? To hell with that. I was right back to my old self. Could I help with this, could I fix that, could I get to this person in time to make sure they don't backstab that person, on and on. Stupid altruism. At least the culture here rewarded honor, not that they'd ever know that I was saving the world. Even in my head 'saving the world' sounded funny. Trying to get a couple less people killed was a lot more accurate.

But as it stood right now, I was a full eighteen. I say or so because time gets a little wonky when you're not operating by the calendar you're used to and the lack of milestones you're used to. Regardless of my age, I was still waiting to be old enough to put my changes into place. Aging was slower here. Physically I was... well, I've run into the same problem that the fandom did with Rukia's age. Late adolescence was really the best way to describe my age. I've got the apparently hereditary Hirako teeth—so much for the braces of my last incarnation—and the same angular face as Shinji. Like him, most of my height was in my legs—hallelujah—but unlike him, I had ash-blond hair instead of sunny gold. if it wasn't for that, my height, and my hazel eyes, I could be mistaken for his twin instead of his older sister. I was losing the height advantage year by year, but I handled that well when I was where I belonged and I would handle it well now.

I hoped I would, anyway. It'd long been a running joke that I was the Hirako with the shortest fuse. Anywhere else I'd be considered patient; here I'm considered hard to handle because I don't plot my enemies' downfall and laugh when my plans come to fruition. The Hirako clan was creepy. No wonder they produced Shinji.

"Narin! Narin, hide me!" Speak of the devil. Shinji came pelting down the veranda, blond ponytail flying behind him and ink splattered all over his hands, sleeves, and face. I didn't even want to know how he got it on his face. Chicken-scratch handwriting or no, you don't see me with ink on my face.

I had about a second to consider whether I really wanted to aid my brother. On the one hand, he'd called me by that cutesy nickname he made up when he was the equivalent of three, and if I didn't let myself skimp on the tutoring sessions, he shouldn't get to either. On the other hand, Shinji. I needed him to be close to me for when everything came apart at the seams, and it was damn near impossible to argue with his enthusiasm. I wanted to preserve a little of that before he got completely jaded.

I settled for tossing my scroll aside and grabbing him by the collar, heaving him off the veranda and hurriedly stuffing him into the crawl space. Shinji had just enough sense to shut up and mute his spirit power, while I tried to focus on projecting my presence outwards. Now, I didn't know anything about making use of my reiryoku, being a girl child expected to marry some nice young man whose clan was under the Shihouin like mine and become a spymaster. I did, however, know a good deal about the phenomenon known as the Bavarian Fire Drill: act like you're authorized to do something and seven times out of eight people will go with it. I stuck out my chest, collected my scroll as if nothing had happened, and put a serene smile on my face for Shinji's tutor.

Ise Kenichi, as he came around the corner, looked as harried as ever. Smoke-tinted glasses were slipping down his nose, sooty black hair coming out of its plait. His green tea-colored kimono was the only thing that wasn't rumpled, though it was splashed with ink. His aunt Asami was my tutor, and even though she had so many of my questions to deal with, there was no question that Asami had the easier job.

"Good afternoon, Ise-san," I greeted him, smiling innocently. My features in this life weren't as easy to shape into such an expression, but I managed. "I didn't realize there was a branch of calligraphy that involved writing on yourself. Will Asami-sensei teach me that someday?"

"It's an afternoon, Nariko-dono, but I don't know about the good part," he said wearily, ignoring my joke. "Where is your younger brother?"

I shrugged. Outright lying I couldn't bring myself to do, especially not to a man just trying to do his job, but bending the truth was a little easier. "I'm not exactly sure of that myself," I admitted, rubbing the back of my neck as though sheepish. It was technically true, given that he could've wiggled deeper into the crawl space and wasn't where I'd put him. "Did you check the kitchens?"

Kenichi heaved a sigh. "I've checked half the clan grounds by now."

"Then check the other half!" I chirped, smile honey-sweet. Oh, Shinji had better be very grateful for this. "He'll turn up somewhere comfy, that slacker."

It might've been my imagination, but I could've sworn I heard a muffled squeak of indignation from the floorboards.

"I hope so." Kenichi frowned, swiping ineffectually at the ink staining the back of his hand. Poor guy looked like he could use a drink, like most adults who had to deal with Shinji. "First he wouldn't stop trying to sleep through his lesson on court etiquette, now he's run off... I don't get paid enough for this." A second later his hand flew to his mouth, drew away with a few inky fingerprints left behind. "I'm sorry, Nariko-dono, I didn't mean anything by it."

I tried to make less trouble than my brother, more or less successfully, but I couldn't resist meddling. "It's fine, Ise-san. Shinji's a handful for me too. You know, I know where he likes to hide better than you. If you want, I could look for him and you could get cleaned up. I bet Masami would know how to get the ink out of your clothes," I said, referring to the pretty kitchen maid the whole estate knew Kenichi was crushing on.

He didn't even try to look hesitant. "You'd tell your parents I wasn't neglecting my duties?" Kenichi asked, worn features smoothing with relief. He was way too young to look so old. "I mean, it's not exactly right for me to be teaching Shinji-dono in such attire, but still."

Perfect. "Of course," I said with the brightest smile I could manage. If it was a slightly smug smile, well, I couldn't help that. Most smiles looked smug with Hirako features. "I'll tell them for you."

Kenichi fled at top speed. Shinji must have been even more of a handful than usual if he was that eager to get away.

"Alright, what did you do this time?" I snapped as soon as Kenichi was out of earshot. Shinji squirmed out from under the veranda, more than slightly dirty.

"Aww, Nari-nee, why'd ya have ta throw me like that? At least give me a little warnin'! Ya never do that in trainin'!" He whined. One thing that I had grown used to but still hated was the tendency for every one of my relatives to use thick Osaka-ben instead of Tokyo-ben. How the main dialects in Soul Society were identical to real-world Japanese dialects was yet another thing that puzzled me, but it's possible some souls brought it with them and Soul Society has never been big on change. I'd made a conscious choice to use Tokyo-ben the second I learned it.

"Like training could motivate me," I retorted. Unless I psyched myself up beforehand when Dad was training us in the clan Hakuda style, I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. It wasn't that I was scared—I had been at first, knowing who Shinji was going to become—but that I had only two modes, beat-the-shit-out-of-them and "I don't want to hurt anyone!" To get out of the latter, I had to throw my old life's morals out the window and remember that my opponent was equally skilled and probably wouldn't get the shit beat out of him. Or get surprised, but that wasn't likely in training. Shinji teased me for being a wimp a lot, but it wasn't exactly easy to adapt to a different standard of femininity. Here even the most refined women were expected to know how to wield a naginata and a tantou to deadly effect. "Stupid Shinji. I'm not going to just haul off when Dad's standing right there."

"Ooh, you're so tough, holding back and everything. Spare me your true skill, Nariko-sama," he mocked with a mighty roll of his narrow eyes that would've given me a headache. I whacked him upside the head for it, scowling.

"Ugh, I don't know why I bother sometimes. Why you get to be the heir when I'm the only responsible one here is beyond me," I scoffed, tugging at my collar for some relief from the heat. That had surprised me, too—turned out the reason canon-Shinji had been so protective and good at getting things done despite his silliness was training practically from birth for the responsibility of leading his clan. He was still an ass, though.

"Because I'm awesome and you're a stuffy know-it-all dame?" He said, dancing out of reach when I tried to jab him in the ribs. "Kidding, kidding! But I did hear Dad saying that he's gonna get ya an apprenticeship with one of the Shihouin ladies." At my brief look of horror—what if I replaced Sui-Feng? she'd be a cruel bitch, but not bodyguarding Yoruichi would get her exiled—he corrected himself hastily. "Not Yoruichi-sama, stupid, one of her cousins, Miyako. The one who heads the intel division, I think. Damn if ya ain't luckier than a cricket, Nari-nee. I gotta go off ta stupid Shin'ou and you get a cushy position under Seireitei's spymaster, with connections and gossip and everything."

I stopped fiddling with my clothes to stare at him. "Say that again."

"I'm sorry, alright? I didn't mean that you're just gonna get ta laze around all day hearin' juicy gossip—you totally are, though," Shinji blurted. He tilted his head at me, birdlike, when I didn't hit him. "What, ya don't wanna take a swing at me?"

For the record, I don't knock the stupid out of Shinji that much. Just when he really needs it.

"No, the bit about where I'm going and where you're going," I said, folding my arms.

"I'm going to dumb Shin'ou and you're gonna work under a Shihouin princess?" Shinji said, blinking at me like I'd gone crazy. To be fair, I carried scrolls with me everywhere for the express purpose of learning everything that the manga hadn't explored. If anyone would enjoy being an apprentice spymaster, it was me. I just wanted Shin'ou way more.

"Thanks for telling me, moron!" I snapped at last, biting down hard on the curses filling my head. "When is this happening?"

Shinji shrugged, stuffing his hands into the opposite arm's sleeve. It was weird to not see him stuff his hands into his pockets. Awful circumstances or not, I was probably going to be relieved when Shinji got thrown out and had to switch to human clothes. "I dunno. Prob'ly when the next term at Shin'ou starts, just ta make things easier with packing."

I ran through a couple quick calculations in my head, trying to figure out how much time I had until then. Two weeks, maybe? The cursing in my head had stopped, but only because I didn't know which one was foulest. Some part of me had thought this time of games and sunshine would go on forever, just because I didn't know exactly how much time I had until canon rolled around. I might have enough time to work out a plan and put it into action—damn my habit of winging it in important situations—or I might get caught flat-footed. The trouble was that I couldn't be sure whether dates here matched up to living world dates. Calendars changed, and different cultures screwed things up even more. I had only events to judge my relative position in time by, and none of those had happened yet. "Shinji?" I said absently, twirling my scroll around my fingers. "Hide all my scrolls and books—no, just the fun ones. If you catch me sleeping in, or lazing around, sneak-attack me. I'm going to be busy."

Shinji's eyes were narrow. The fact that his mouth had stopped moving was enough to tell me that he wasn't working out mischief. Good tacticians like Shinji weren't trained—you needed a certain aptitude, the kind Shinji had in spades. So even at this age I knew that my brother was trying to work out what I knew that he didn't, what would motivate me to invite trouble for myself. Finally his smile flickered back into place. "Sure thing. Ya don't need ta tell me twice to prank ya, Narin."

My hand shot out before he could pull his hand away, grabbing his fingers and squeezing. "Shinji?" I said, even sweeter than I had been with Kenichi. "It's Nariko. Don't you forget it."

"O-ow! Stop it, Narin!" He yelped, trying to jerk away.

I left him massaging his fingers and wiping away tears. I didn't have time for stupid nicknames.

There were plans to make, lessons to learn, and people to persuade.

"Dad, I need to talk to you about my education."

"Mmm?" Kenji said absently as he looked through a report on sake production. To my mixed amusement and chagrin, I had been educated on the fine points of sake as part of our family business since I was a small child. For instance, I knew that today was a hot day with no company expected, suitable for chilled nigori-zake. "What about it? The Shihouin who's gonna take you under her wing is one of Seireitei's movers and shakers, y'know."

I bit my lip and tried again. "Dad, I'm not sure about my apprenticeship."

He didn't even glance up. "I know it's a big step towards becoming an adult, Nariko, but ya can't just expect ta be a little girl forever."

I frowned sharply, scuffing my sandals on the floor. Unsurprisingly, paper rustled beneath my feet. Never let it be said that any Hirako is organized. "I don't think I'm comfortable with being apprenticed to Shihouin Miyako."

Now he spared a puzzled glance for me. "What's gotten into you, Nariko? It's gonna be a tough job, but ya can't possibly be thinkin' that I'm gonna make you do anythin' I didn't think you could handle. You'll know the secrets of all Seireitei!"

It was an incredibly tempting possibility. I would have access to what amounted to libraries' worth of knowledge, know what everybody wanted to hide, and be able to air their dirty laundry at will. Problem was that that wouldn't help me with Aizen. I couldn't plan an essay given a prompt, let alone come up with a plan to stop a man second only to Urahara from the few facts his Zanpakutou couldn't cover up.

Sorry, Dad. Screw filial piety, I've got a duty to the world too.

"Dad. I'm not scared of an apprenticeship. I want to go to Shin'ou with Shinji," I said, sticking out my chin and folding my arms tight across my chest. That gesture was my trump card, the one that said that only the Soul King himself could change my decision. Internally, I cringed. What if he said no? I didn't like defying authority. Following the rules, doing what I was told, those made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Going against the order of things did the exact opposite.

Kenji stared. Gulped as he saw the posture I'd taken, back so straight it was practically anathema to the ever-slouching Hirako. The quivering feeling inside me subsided as I watched the gears in his brain turn. Maybe I was better at this whole backbone thing than I thought.

"Nariko..." He began, then stopped and hesitated. If he was going to say that I had somehow been born without reiryoku, I was going to hurt someone. I hadn't been put in this situation for nothing, dammit! "I just ain't sure that Shin'ou's the right path for ya to walk. Shinji, he's strong. Stronger maybe than any other Shinigami this clan's ever seen. You're..."

Fire crept through my body with every word my father spoke. If I opened my mouth, I was sure, I would incinerate him. Son of a bitch. I'm not weak, not worthless, not pathetic just because Shinji's exceptional! I shoved back at the fire with cold fury. My sight had gone hot and blurry. Stupid tears! "I'm what?" I said, fighting the tremble in my words. From the second I'd been old enough to understand the people around me, I'd been bombarded with praise for the Shinigami. It wasn't that you were less-than if you weren't one, but you were expected to aspire to be one. And why wouldn't you? Even the lowliest Shinigami stood above a civilian, they had powers and education and a guaranteed place in Seireitei. I couldn't not be one! "I'm not as strong as Shinji, is that it?"

So well-intentioned it made my teeth clench, Kenji rose and approached me, clearly wanting to give me a comforting hug. I didn't want a hug. I wanted an Academy uniform! "Sweetheart, yer mom and I always thought you'd be better off away from all that. We didn't want ya ta feel... inadequate compared to your brother. An apprenticeship to Miyako-dono would really be th' best for ya." He opened his arms, stepped in for a hug.

I knocked his arms away before they could close around me. "I-I knew that," I hissed between my teeth. "I know Shinji is stronger than me, but you can't just say no because he's better. Not every Shinigami is a captain. Do you think they shouldn't have enlisted too?" I stopped and took a breath, throat tight and painful with rage. "And so what if he's got more reiryoku? I'm more responsible, harder-working, more disciplined than he is. Maybe it's Shinji who shouldn't be heading off to Shin'ou! Give him to Miyako-sama. I bet he'll do great knowing everybody's business; it's hardly different from here." I jabbed a thumb at my chest. "I am not inadequate!"

Dad's jaw dropped. He sputtered for a few seconds, a few shades paler than when I'd begun. Running joke that I had a short fuse or not, I didn't think he had ever seen me really, truly angry. Something twinged inside me. I'd be so relieved when I could stop using anger to get my way. "Nariko... ya really feel this way. And I don't got a prayer of changin' your mind?"

Every part of me wanted to say that he could change my mind, to agree and keep myself safe, except for the part that knew what was going to happen and couldn't stand by and let it happen. "Not a prayer, Dad. Even if I'm the most pathetic Shinigami Seireitei's ever seen, even if I'm only good at academics, I can still make a difference." And maybe learn some ways to declare my resolve that weren't completely cheesy. All the canon Shinigami seemed to have had that sort of thing mastered. "Shin'o still needs teachers, right?" My smile was so shaky that I let Dad give me a hug this time, sniffling and trying to surreptitiously wipe my nose on his kimono.

"The world can always use teachers," he agreed. We stood there in silence for a while, my head against his chest, until he broke the silence. "I'll talk to Makoto about it. But I don't think she'll disagree if'n you're really that set against goin' with Miyako-dono."

I hugged him as tightly as I could. Yes, yes, yes! "Thanks, Dad. I promise I'll make you proud."

When I left, my heart had never felt so big, and I'd never felt so small.

Shinji had made good on his promise to keep me from being lazy so far. I almost wished that what I was doing now counted as being lazy. I didn't want to make plans. They required so much paper that I could barely carry it all and the writing made my hand cramp up.

But here I sat, carefully writing down every factor I could think of that needed to be taken into consideration for my plans to work.

First in my mind was how strong I needed to be and how fast. Kenji said I wasn't as strong as Shinji, but if I understood how Zanpakutou worked properly, that wouldn't have an impact on the speed of my progress in that area. Zanpakutou took shape as their wielder learned who they were and impressed that on an asauchi; I'd always been very sure of who I was and probably wouldn't have loads of trouble in that area. Bankai was another story—reiryoku levels determined whether you could even achieve it and even if I did it would take time to master. Time I might not have. And yeah, I could use Urahara and Ichigo's method, but I wasn't very keen on dying and I was pretty sure I didn't have the plot armor necessary for that.

No, I'd focus on getting Shikai as quickly as I could and mastering that. After that I'd see if my Zanpakutou spirit thought I should have Bankai. And damn if that wasn't weird, to think of a sentient being inhabiting an inner world inside my soul. Shouldn't Zanpakutou have more rights? I'd ask mine when I discovered it.

Hakuda and Houhou seemed like areas I could handle. Hakuda would be an interesting prospect, with lots of clan styles and the Academy style to draw on. It'd probably up my strength. Houhou was necessary, if not my forte. I'd always been a slow walker in life, better with short sprints than with long-distance running and even then not all that great. That was precisely why I'd need to learn it, of course.

Kidou... I wasn't sure about Kidou. From my research in the clan libraries, I knew the words, hand seals, and drawings were focuses, designed to help coordinate manipulation of one's own reiryoku. Rote memorization was something I excelled at, but the bit about using one's own reiryoku was the catch. Kenji'd implied that I wasn't all that strong, so I probably wouldn't be able to perform the high-level spells. Unless... if there was a way to store reiryoku, I could use that, but I'd save that project for later, like I'd have to save the many theories I had about just how Kidou worked. Apparently it paid off to have written fanfiction in my spare time; I'd put a good deal of time into considering the mechanics for my plots' sake.

Second was what to do about Aizen. Soul aging was so strange that I couldn't pinpoint his age relative to Shinji and me, meaning I didn't know if he'd be a classmate, an instructor, or already a Shinigami. If he was a classmate, I'd have to take the time to learn everything I could about him, maybe even try to befriend him, if his plots could be averted, but I wasn't banking on that. If he was an instructor, I'd work to be one of his best students, both in the subject area and in philosophy—Aizen had seemed awfully bent on that. Teachers had an influence on students, but that could go both ways if the student played it right. If he was already a Shinigami, I was completely out of luck. By then he'd be set in his ways, already planning to replace Seireitei's paving with Legos or some evil shit like that.

Third was what to do about the creation of the Visoreds. On the one hand, they'd lost everything when Aizen experimented on them—careers, homes, families, dignity, even the sanctity of their own minds. And Shinji was my brother. I couldn't let him be hurt like that.

But I had to. The Visoreds had to train Ichigo and had to help out at the Fake Karakura Town battle. Hachi had taken out the Espada nobody else had been able to kill, and I really didn't like our chances against Barragan without his boosted power. And Ichigo might not even be born if Urahara didn't know how to stop Soul Suicide from his work with the Visoreds. I didn't have to like my choice, but I would have to make it. Shinji and the others would be Hollowfied.

Wait. The letter I'd been in the middle of writing—I didn't want anyone being able to read it, so English instead of Japanese it was—turned into an unrecognizable blot as I stopped mid-stroke.

I could save one of them. None of the captains, since that would require power I didn't have, but there was a small chance for one of the lieutenants. I'd always gotten the impression that Hiyori was insecure about her position because she'd been relatively new to it, and because she didn't like change—her behavior with Urahara had shown that. Mashiro was a maybe, with her ditzy persona making it hard to tell how experienced she was. Lisa had seemed too much a part of the Eighth to have been new, although she was rather adaptable. I marked her down as a 'probably not.' I didn't know enough of the Kidou Corps to say that I could take Hachi's place, and didn't want to. Kindly manner or no, Tessai was scary, and my reiryoku reserves weren't that great.

Should I save Hiyori if I could? She and Shinji had clearly been friends, if hostile towards each other. It was hard to say whether that was the result of surviving trauma and being thrown into exile or not, though. They hadn't come across as very friendly in the Turn Back the Pendulum gaiden, that was for sure. But nearly losing her in the Fake Karakura Town battle had gotten Shinji the angriest I'd ever seen him. That had to count for something. On the other hand, I was his sister, had grown up with him as far as he knew. If I took Hiyori's place, I'd likely garner the same reactions from him.

It was bad of me to think, but I had the feeling I'd be more competent than Hiyori. Unlike her, I had some inclination for science and plenty of curiosity where I lacked exceptional talent. Even cooking I enjoyed, and I'd read somewhere that cleaning was an important part of military life. I'd learn to like it whether I wanted to or not. And there were the feelings of Hiyori to consider. She'd already lost Hikifune. Could she stand to lose Urahara and Shinji? Hiyori was tough as nails and strong for a 4' 4" blond pipsqueak, but she screamed 'trust issues.' On the other hand, having your soul invaded by a cannibalistic, murderous monster? I wouldn't trust myself after that, let alone the people technically responsible for my transformation. And judging from the way she'd behaved ever since her first appearance in the manga, Hiyori's trust issues hadn't faded—she'd hated humans and Shinigami, picked a fight with Hitsugaya for no good reason, and apparently lacked so much confidence in her allies that she'd gone right for Aizen.

Yeah, maybe it was better for everyone involved if I took Hiyori's place. I finished that scroll, then stopped, biting my lip. If I took Hiyori's place, there was a good chance I'd suffer her fate. To feel that sort of pain, to fight a warped version of myself, to be rejected and ripped away from the only home I had after already losing my whole world—could I do it? If even one of my theories about what they'd gone through were correct, being a Visored was no picnic, and despite my determination, despite all the virtues I'd named to my father, I wasn't nearly as strong as the Visoreds. Not mentally, not physically, not spiritually.

I tossed my scroll and brush away with a hiss of frustration, rose to pace. Still weak, still pathetic, still worthless! I berated myself, trying to get at the resolve I'd only ever known to manifest in me when I was angry. It failed, the warm strength of pleasure that had been coursing through me at finding ways to protect people growing a little colder. What did you think would happen when you were born in a world where the military is everything? When you knew war was coming? You chose Shin'ou to grow strong and protect everyone! You can't back out because you're too damn scared of pain and what people think of you!

But I could. All I had to do was tell Dad that I'd rethought my plans and I could get a nice, comfortable life for myself. Safe and engaging, so suited for me that my own father had chosen it. And I was scared of pain and rejection, no matter how much I pretended otherwise. People hating me, calling me a heartless demon and an abomination, confirming everything I knew I'd come to think about myself when Aizen had finished with me... I didn't know if I could withstand that. I didn't know if I could withstand the pain of having my soul torn in two.

"Nari-nee?" I whirled as Shinji's voice came from behind me. He stood in the door of the library, blinking first at my writing materials and then at me. "Are you okay? I felt your reiatsu..."

My heart twisted. I couldn't withstand Hollowfication, not by myself, not for myself. But with my brother, with the others? For them and for everyone else who would need me to fight? Yes. I could do that. I had to. "Am I ever okay?" I said lightly, trying to brush off my agitation. "Don't worry about it, Shin. Just some stupid teenage girl stuff."

He smirked. "Aww, Nari-nee's already got herself a beau? Hope ya've already told him that I won't be takin' kindly to anybody who messes with my sister. An' that you won't be takin' kindly to him tryin' either."

I rolled my eyes and held up a fist at him. "I swear, Shinji, you're just asking to get punched!" I snapped. "I don't have a boyfriend! Don't want one either!" Especially since I had more important things on my mind than getting laid, even if Shinji didn't.

Shinji, being Shinji, just raised an eyebrow. "You'd best wait until we get to Shin'ou for that," he said. "I understand they're more forgiving of that sort of thing there."

Huh? Not knowing how to respond to that, I just looked at him blankly for a second before it came to me in a flash of enlightenment. "Hey! Idiot, don't go jumping to conclusions like that!" Especially since past-me hadn't exactly figured sexuality out either. I really didn't need more internal conflict, not with the incredibly strange Hollow that was bound to produce. "I'm just saying that I'm being stupid and regretting going to Shin'ou a little!"

He frowned, abruptly turning serious and walking towards me. "Why?" Shinji asked. Bless him, he didn't mock my worries. The Hirako were as a rule comfortable with who they were, leading to a clan-wide philosophy of 'figure out your problems, solve the ones you can and recognize the ones you can't, then get on with your life.' It was even in the clan creed: 'See yourself in the flat of the blade, accepting the cruel edge and protective duty.' None that I'd met so far were much good with more deep-seated psychological problems, but at least they didn't make fun of you if you were genuinely troubled.

I hesitated. What was I supposed to say? 'Because I just signed both our death warrants?' 'Because I'm terrified out of my mind by cannibalistic demons, the kind we'll someday turn into?' "Just...thinking," I said finally. "What if I graduate, join a division, and get stuck in a dead-end job? I'll look back and wonder what could've been better if I'd done what Dad wanted originally. I don't want to regret this choice."

"Stupid," Shinji scoffed. "There's no way you'll regret it. We're gonna take Shin'ou on together, right? It'll all turn out fine if you've got me and I've got you. So you'll do fine. Maybe ya ain't the prodigy I am, but ya ain't unseated material either."

"Leave it to you to brag about yourself while you're encouraging me," I said, poking my tongue out at him. Maybe it was wrong of me, but I couldn't help wondering if keeping him humble now would keep him from being caught by surprise by Aizen.

"Somebody has to make sure people don't think this clan is made of hide-in-a-corner crybabies," he retorted. For all the quickness of his tongue, Shinji wasn't quick enough to dodge when I darted forwards and kicked him in the shin.

"Just you wait, Shinji." I grinned, folding my arms and tilting my chin up as faux-arrogantly as I could manage. "I'll make you eat my dust."

If we both don't bite the dust...

I shut that thought out, flapping a hand at him. "Now get out of here. I want to study and you are not on the test."

True to the terms of our agreement, he left me alone. I recovered my brush and scroll, frowning as I looked over my writing. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't think of any factor I'd neglected. There definitely were some—my brain had a nasty habit of thinking it knew everything while knowing nothing—but I couldn't see any just now. Well, I had seven years to think about it before the shit really hit the fan.

Time to get on with actually studying.